Mason Street Musings

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on March 25th, 2007

Reprinted from The Catholic Radical, April/May 2007

“You people make me sick!” our guest screamed. “You call yourselves Christians! You’re a bunch of hypocrites! I’ll sue you for throwing me out on the street!”

Although it’s our preference to feature heartwarming stories of guests who are grateful for our hospitality and leave us for a better future, it’s not honest to sugarcoat Catholic Worker reality. Some of those who stay with us have life-long problems which we hardly understand, much less resolve. Some are prevented by addiction or mental illness from making healthy choices. Some steal from each other or from us. A very small number, thanks be to God, fly off the handle.

We had just about every type of challenging guest in February. Several got drunk and lied to us about it. One got up in the middle of the night to smoke in the bathroom. Another relapsed on drugs. An alcoholic former guest tried to sneak into the house at five in the morning to “use the bathroom.” During a previous restroom stop, he stole a guest’s leather jacket. Several guests lied to us about their income and housing plans. One of them told a story so ridiculous that I felt like saying, “Do yourself a favor. Before you tell me another lie, run it by someone else to see if they would believe you.” It’s disrespectful enough that someone lies to me without treating me as a complete idiot.

Catholic Worker life can be hard. On the coldest day of the year, I turned up the heat, encouraged everyone to sleep in, made a special dinner, bought snacks, and rented a movie to watch with the guests, only to see everyone stay out late drinking. I didn’t even get a backhanded apology. I had turned down many others who called for hospitality because all our bed were full with ungrateful louts. Part of me wished I had a catapult. When someone came in drunk, I wouldn’t have to ask questions or give a speech. I’d just say, “Please sit here,” flick a switch, and watch them hurtle off into the distance. “Good riddance,” I’d say with determination to fill their beds with the deserving poor.

Although tempting, there is just one problem with that approach: it isn’t Christian. Today’s Gospel by Luke set me straight. In it, Jesus calls us to love those who hate, abuse, and even try to kill us because irrational love is what God has for all of us. At Saint Benedict’s house in Washington, DC, I learned from Michael Kirwin that the Catholic Worker is more of a love story than a success story. In Loaves and Fishes, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, wrote about a very difficult guest who said on his death bed, “I have only one possession left in the world—my cane. Take it—take it and wrap it around the neck of some of these bastards around here.”

Human beings can be so outrageous at times that it’s easier to love them if you laugh than if you let self-centered anger take over. Dorothy went a step farther and said: “the only true influence we have on people is through supernatural love. This sanctity (not obnoxious piety) so affects others that they can be saved by it. Even though we seem to increase the delinquency of others . . . , we can do for others, through God’s grace, what no law enforcement can do, what no common sense can achieve.”

And so, when our probably not sober guest screamed at Claire and me, “I HOPE YOU BOTH BURN IN HELL!!” I merely asked, “Would you like a ride somewhere?” to which he replied in a calm voice, “Sure, I’ll take a ride.” (He’s been by the house twice since then without incident.)

May this Lent help us all to become better lovers. May this Easter remind us love conquers every problem, even death itself.

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